Columns, Opinion

What Grinds My Gears: On handling sensitive topics

The Daily Free Press published an article yesterday about a C0201 assignment that went awry. I urge you to read this story because it outlines the entire issue and what is currently being done.

In several sections of the communications writing course, students had to write a “reported memoir” about either a #MeToo or LGBTQ experience. They then read those stories in front of their class and turned them in for professor critiques.

Many students were uncomfortable with writing and sharing their personal, sensitive stories. When the administration heard about the assignment, these sections of the class were informed that the memoir assignment had been cancelled and would not be graded.

They also asked for students to turn in their papers so that the administration could review the professor comments on them. They have since withdrawn that request.

I am enrolled in this CO201 class, and I have quickly realized that issues of sexual harassment and assault aren’t always black and white. I have friends who were made extremely uncomfortable by the professor and the assignment. I also have friends that believe that the administration is grossly overreacting.

I have to respect both sides, because I understand where each one is coming from. I wrote about a story I had only told about five people prior to me sharing it with the class. It gave me a panic attack to write and relive my experience, but I did it because it was an assignment. So I completely understand where that group is coming from.

On the other hand, I truly believe that the professor never meant any harm. He just wanted us to become better writers and was trying to teach the class how to do that by writing about a newsworthy topic. I am proud of my memoir. I haven’t been able to flex my narrative writing muscle in far too long, and it felt good, so I understand my other friends as well.

I have been stuck these last couple of days in this weird position of both processing the situation and also maintaining my role as a journalist. I’m certain it won’t be the last time I find myself here, but as this is the first time, I haven’t quite figured out how to feel about what has happened.

For this reason, I’m not going to comment on what I think should happen to the assignment, professor or class. I also feel like that’s not my place. I’m not qualified to make that determination or have nearly enough information to make an educated decision.

However, I do believe this highlights a very important conversation about teaching sensitive topics, especially in a communication school. Lessons about sexual assault and harrassment and LGBTQ issues in classrooms can be incredibly valuable.

Students would learn how to understand their peers. They’d learn the nuances of sexual assault and harassment and what it looks like to step over the line. Teaching LGBTQ issues would allow students who identify as part of that community to feel a sense of solidarity while also creating better allies.

Student journalists would benefit the most. They’d learn how to report on these issues and the people affected. They would enter the field as more empathetic storytellers with a stronger desire to a give a voice to the people who have been silenced. This is something the College of Communication should be advocating.

If done properly, I believe that integrating sensitive material into classroom discussion can be extremely beneficial. As a journalist, there are going to be times where I am uncomfortable, and certain assignments which are going to be emotionally taxing. This is a lesson that I think needs to be taught.

So how does COM make assignments that cause students to step out of their comfort zone in a way that teaches them a lesson without potentially traumatizing them? How can sensitive topics like #MeToo and LGBTQ discrimination be integrated in the course material in a way that is beneficial rather than hurtful? And most importantly, when should students be taught when to be a journalist and when to be a person? When do we learn when to say if something is too much?

I know it varies person to person, but I wish someone would explain when (or if) it’s OK to say no and when to push past your emotions and fight for the story.

Those aren’t questions I have the answers to. I don’t know the proper way to handle sensitive topics in the classroom. It’s why I still don’t know if the CO201 assignment crossed a line for me.

However, if COM truly wants to breed the next generation of responsible, compassionate journalists, these are the questions they need to answer.

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